Queen Victoria has a little problem: there’s a petty thief at work in Buckingham Palace. Mary Quinn takes the simple case, going undercover as a domestic servant. But before long, a scandal threatens to tear apart the Royal Family.
One of the Prince of Wales’s irresponsible young friends is killed in disgraceful circumstances. Should the Queen hush things up or allow justice to take its course? Mary’s interest in this private matter soon becomes deeply personal: the killer, a drug-addicted Chinese sailor, shares a name with her long-lost father.
The Traitor in The Tunnel is third in Y.S. Lee’s Young Adult series about a Victorian-era detective agency specializing in discreet solutions. The lead character, Mary Lang, was taken in by Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls at age twelve, after she was caught burglarizing houses and sentenced to death. Later, she learns that the Academy is actually The Agency and as a teenager becomes an agent, taking the name Mary Quinn. Because she’s young and relatively new to her job, Mary starts out each novel with a small investigation; however, her case always turns out to be more complicated, with the tension growing exponentially as the plot advances.
There are several interesting aspects to the series. The spies/detectives are all women, which is rare in any series, much less one written for young adults. If you enjoy romance in your mysteries, Mary has a recurring love interest in engineer James Easton; their rollercoaster relationship continues throughout the series, and is very popular with its fans. Of most interest to me, Mary is of mixed race: her father was a Chinese sailor, her mother an Irish seamstress. Related to Mary’s racial background, the series deals often, realistically, with the implications of Britain’s colonial empire both politically and socially, something that’s often neglected in fiction set during that era. Lee shows how embracing the diversity and complexity of London in that period gives wonderful opportunities for mystery/suspense plots.
England was rarely a comfortable place for Asiatics, or any foreigners for that matter. But since that past summer’s aggression and bloodshed between Britain and China, tempers and temperatures had run especially high, particularly for the Chinese community in London. England was not at war with China. Not officially, at least. But English troops were killing Chinese — both soldiers and civilians; the Chinese retaliated, and there had been rumors of torture.
Mary’s racial background is thus of particular importance to the plot in The Traitor in The Tunnel, in more than one way.
“A moment, Commissioner.” Queen Victoria’s voice sliced through Mary’s thoughts. “What is the name of this opium fiend—the murderer?”
“It’s a Chinese name, Your Majesty. Difficult to say—even assuming he gave his real name.”
“Do your best.”
A pause. Then, haltingly, “It’s Lang.”
Mary caught her breath. The blood in her veins seemed to freeze for a long moment, then resume its course with a drunken swoop. Foolish, she scolded herself. Utter coincidence. Lang was a common-enough Chinese surname. What did it matter that it was the same as hers the real name she’d abandoned, yet another fragment of her lost childhood?
“…Jin Hai Lang.”
Her pulse roared in her ears, so loudly she could scarcely hear the queen’s terse thanks and dismissal. Jin Hai Lang, a Lascar in Limehouse.
…Lang Jin Hai, his name in Chinese. An opium addict. A murderer. And, unless she’d gone completely mad . . . Her father.
…Her father’s name, and one of the few things about him she could remember. He was gone—lost at sea when she was a small child—risking all on a mission to uncover truth.
Mary has to make hard decisions that will bring her into conflict with her employers, with Victorian society, and with the Queen; her personal risk is combined with the danger in defending someone who is likely at odds with society and the government, as well.
Queen Victoria’s unquestioned authority in this matter raised other, even more dangerous questions about the sort of justice Lang Jin Hai might receive.
…She would have to investigate. Uncover the truth. And, possibly, fight to save an innocent man. A man who might be her father.
I highly recommend this series to fans of historical mysteries, even if you don’t consider yourself a Young Adult!
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.